Robert Fulton is known as the inventor of the steam boat. But in fact, he did not invent it. Fulton became famous, rather, because he made a success of the steam boat by making it practical. The steam boat actually showed Fulton's genius as an engineer, not an inventor. Steam boats had been built in the early 1700's, and John Fitch even operated one that he built on a regular basis in 1790 in Philadelphia. Fulton's steam boat did not use new things, but rather he changed the proportions, arrangements, and velocities of already proposed ideas. He didn't invent the process, but by studying the successes and failures of others, he made it work.
Fulton was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1765, a son of Robert Fulton, Sr., and Mary Smith. He had three older sisters, Elizabeth, Isabella, and Mary, and would soon have a younger brother, Abraham. The family sold the farm and moved into the city of Lancaster in 1766. Fulton's father died in 1768, leaving behind a widow with five children. He developed an interest in painting, but that was not believed to be a serious occupation by most people of that time. At the age of 17 he left for Philadelphia, the major city in America for cultural pursuits such as painting and book publishing, and a great place for a young man with Fulton's keen mind and wide range of interests. He found some success there as a painter of portraits and miniatures, and met some influential people such as Benjamin Franklin. By the age of 21 he was able to purchase a farm for his mother in Hopewell Township, Washington County, PA. It was here that her brother, Rev. Joseph Smith, had settled.
He traveled to London in 1786, hoping to further his painting career. Benjamin West, who had come from the same area as Fulton, was in London and already famous, and Fulton had recommendations from Franklin as well. Fulton was engaged mostly in his art, but by age 30 he had decided to pursue engineering. One of his first designs was a mill for...
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